will the “new GMOs” prevail in Europe?
The European Commission is due to propose legislation at the beginning of July on genetic biotechnologies, emerging techniques striving to develop more resistant seeds and qualified as “new GMOs” by their detractors, auguring sharp differences among States and MEPs. Seeds less vulnerable to droughts and diseases, less water-intensive… Called in English NBT or NGT (“new genomic techniques”), a myriad of genomic editing tools that have appeared in recent years modify the genetic material of plants without adding exterior, unlike so-called “transgenic” GMOs introducing an exterior gene. A simple way to accelerate the evolution that could have been obtained naturally according to their supporters; “hidden GMOs” according to environmental organizations, standing up against any deregulation.
From 2021, the European executive deemed the draconian rules governing GMOs (authorization, traceability, labeling, monitoring, etc.) “unsuitable” for these new biotechnologies. “The plants produced by NGT can support the sustainability” of European agriculture and strengthen its “competitiveness”, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides assured MEPs at the end of April. Being finalized, the proposed regulatory framework “will send a clear signal to farmers, researchers and industrialists that this is the way to go”, she said. Brussels currently lists 90 authorization requests for NGT crops (a third at an advanced research stage), with so far only a few field tests (maize in Belgium, potatoes in Sweden, etc.).
In a document dated February, consulted by AFP, the Commission studied in particular the possibility of “treating in the same way” conventional seeds and NGT products presenting modifications which can occur naturally or via traditional crossings, with various options for labeling. “When (NGT) serve the reduction of phytosanitary products and make it possible to deal with climate change, with varieties more resistant to heat stroke, we must try to accelerate”, argued in April the French Minister of Agriculture Marc Fesneau, worrying about a European “delay”.
At the end of 2022, his Spanish counterpart Luis Planas boasted “a magnificent instrument for having crops that need less water and fertilizer”. Positions supported by the powerful agricultural organization Copa-Cogeca. “The climate is changing, diseases and fungi are evolving… if we want to feed Europe and be self-sufficient, we have to adapt the rules” to give ourselves the means to develop more resistant varieties, pleads one of its managers. , Thor Gunnar Kofoed. In the European Parliament, a majority supports regulatory relaxation.
If the conservatives of the EPP want a “moratorium” on any binding reduction target for pesticides, they push on the other hand for a framework favorable to NGT, capable of “stimulating research, investment, employment”… and of boost productivity. For Pascal Canfin, President Renew (centrists) of the Environment Committee, NGTs can “be part of the solutions useful for the agricultural transition” if they contribute to alternative solutions to chemical pesticides. But unlike the EPP, he wants to stay the course on the other texts of the Green Pact.
Some states are circumspect: in mid-March Austria castigated a Commission impact study “based on assumptions and conjectures” more than on scientific data, calling for “an exhaustive study of environmental and health risks” and investments on biosecurity. Hungary, Cyprus, Germany and Luxembourg supported it, Berlin asking for “a social, socially accepted approach (…) to preserve the precautionary principle, freedom of choice and the coexistence of different agricultural systems”. In Parliament, the left is resistant to any specific legislation, recalling that the European Court of Justice (CJEU) had estimated in mid-2018 that organisms resulting from new breeding techniques fell “in principle within the scope of the GMO directive”. . The legislative battle should focus on the safeguards to be provided.
“The Commission is playing sorcerer’s apprentice,” said Socialist MEP Eric Andrieu, calling for the preservation of “the precautionary principle, transparency and total consumer information”. The Greens want a “complete risk assessment” to avoid unexpected effects (new toxins or allergens, etc.), oblige developers to provide detection and traceability methods, and make labeling compulsory. This last measure would deter consumers, wants to believe Mute Schimpf, Friends of the Earth. For her, this legislation is a “smokescreen to avoid the debate on the transition” of agricultural models, while “these new GMOs are only a promise with uncertain realization”.
Julien GIRAULT AFP